I was walking along thinking about what I would say in this blog, aware of the fact that it is National Intergenerational Week from the 8th-14th March, when my 6-year-old companion opined – apropos of nothing – “Ladybirds are different from caterpillars. They don’t look like, but they are the same; they are family; I like them both.” Now I suspect that this observation has arisen from an over-abundance of David Attenborough and Adam Kay’s Anatomy –(which if you have not read you should! ) – but it is so apposite.
Intergenerational Week is this year an online campaign backed by many organisations and is all about celebrating the times when people of all ages come together, make friends and work, learn, relax and change one another. In the year that has passed we have so missed those moments of connection and togetherness as lockdowns have separated old from young, generation from generation, and the absence has ached and hurt. Perhaps those who have missed the connection between different ages the most have been residents in care homes and even though in Scotland indoor visits are now starting again we all long for the day when children can see grandparents and great-grandparents.
The organisers of Intergenerational Week also point to a pre-pandemic reality which I know for countless folks rings true and that is that for many of us being connected across the generations has changed over the years. We are a long way off from the times when most families lived together across the generations, or at least in close proximity. Many of us live our lives a distance of time and travel away from our older generation not least because so many are having family later in life. Busyness, older parenthood, changing leisure patterns as well as mobility have all affected family generational connections.
Last week I wrote about the impact of loneliness and isolation during lockdown on the mental health of all people, but perhaps especially the old and the young. The pandemic has taught us a painful lesson about the risks of loneliness and isolation, and the importance of connections which previously we might have taken for granted. The pandemic has also in a positive sense shown us the ability of human individuals to reach out, to cross divides, to make the effort to get to know, to be concerned for, and to connect with those who are different from us regardless of age or circumstance.
Moving forward we need to work hard at not just restoring the inter-generational connections and opportunities we used to have before the pandemic, but we also need to put effort into making sure that we can create new opportunities for the age divide to be removed and shattered.
We need to, I believe, do much more at creating spaces and places where the generations can work and relax, live and simply be together. There is a real risk that we create divides in the name of infection prevention that limits our capacity to be close to others and to form new and meaningful relationships across the generations. One of the worst legacies of our pandemic response – though I know a health necessity- has been the idea of social distance. To be social you can never be distant, you have always to be close and proximate, alongside to touch and be changed by interaction.
But the pandemic has also shown us the risks of creating false divides across the generations. There have at times not least in media and popular dialogue, been the risk of creeping age discrimination. The prioritisation of the welfare of the young should never be seen as an opposite to caring for and the focus upon those who are older. Community cannot be created by binary choices or by accentuating the value of one group against another. Community is always nurtured when all peoples regardless of status or role, culture or origin, and critically regardless of age are included, valued and heard.
We can do many more things to work at promoting and advancing inter-generational activity and opportunity. We can resist the temptation to create older age into ghettos- in villages separate from the living of youth; we can create care facilities for those who require support in the heart of our communities and cities. We can resource better models such as student and older age co-operative living, which enable the generations to live, move and have their being in connection one with the other.
A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting where representatives of Young Scot shared their issues in relation to technology, including the challenges of digital poverty and exclusion. On hearing these issues I was aware of just how similar the challenges they spoke of are for those of an older generation. In an era of increased dependence and reliance upon technology and digital, the risks of technological exclusion and digital poverty don’t discriminate on the basis of age alone. However the benefits of inclusion equally cross the age divide. The potential of those who are young who possess the skills, confidence and familiarity with technology to share these with those who are older in order to enable technological and relational connection across the generations are immense.
The potential of inter-generational connection is immense; it is so often untapped and rarely prioritised, but in essence it is what creates truly inclusive communities, with or without technology.
The motto for the week ahead is Say No to the Age Gap – it is one grounded in the age-old insight that we are all of us so inter-connected that a focus that does not prioritise and attend to the needs of all, fails all. We need to learn to recognise beauty, flight and freedom in the caterpillar as much as we do in the ladybird. Age is but the outer skin of reality which hides the real person.
I love the insight of the continuous flow and connection between all ages and generations French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery depicts in his poem Generation to Generation. His words also carry with them an injunction and encouragement to us all that it is our task and responsibility to be the both the teachers of tradition and those who learn from all ages:
In a house which becomes a home,
one hands down and another takes up
the heritage of mind and heart,
laughter and tears, musings and deeds.
Love, like a carefully loaded ship,
crosses the gulf between the generations.
Therefore, we do not neglect the ceremonies
of our passage: when we wed, when we die,
and when we are blessed with a child;
When we depart and when we return;
When we plant and when we harvest.
Let us bring up our children. It is not
the place of some official to hand to them
If others impart to our children our knowledge
and ideals, they will lose all of us that is
wordless and full of wonder.
Let us build memories in our children,
lest they drag out joyless lives,
lest they allow treasures to be lost because
they have not been given the keys.
We live, not by things, but by the meanings
of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords
from generation to generation.